The SAAB 340 is a two-engine turboprop aircraft that originated from a partnership between Saab and Fairchild. Saab originally built the fuselage and fin and did the final assembly, while Fairchild was responsible for the wings, empennage, and engine nacelles. First designated as the SF340, the aircraft made its maiden flight back in 1983. When Fairchild moved out of aircraft manufacturing in 1984, the designation was changed to 340A. An improved version, the 340B, introduced more powerful engines and a wider tailplane in 1989. The final version, the 340B Plus, included improvements that were being built into the Saab 2000 at the same time, and was rolled out in 1994. One of these improvements was an active noise control system in the cabin, greatly reducing noise levels to the passengers. Another change from earlier models was a rearrangement of the interior layout giving an increase in the available cargo space. The SAAB 340 typically seats between 30 and 35 passengers. The military variant is the Saab 340 AEW & C, which is an electronic surveillance aircraft. As a result of slow sales, production ended in 2005.
In real life, the Saab 340 suffered when competing with rivals such as the Dash 8, the ATR-42/72, and the Beech 1900. In the flight simulator world, Flight-Factory Simulations' Saab 340 similarly competes with Majestic Software's Dash 8 Q300 Pro, Flight 1's ATR 72-500, and PMDG's B1900. All are virtual aircraft with varying degrees of complexity, but each is successful in its own way. So how successful will the FFS aircraft be?
Installation & Documentation
In the future you will be able to order the CD, but the only option at present is a 74 Mb download from the FFS website. You pay your money, receive a download URL via email, run the download, and then click to install it. The installation process is automatic and straightforward, and everything goes where it should in the "Aircraft" folder, with an "FFS" folder being created in the main FS9 directory for documentation and the Load Configuration Utility. You'll need to use this utility to activate your gauges with a Registration Code that you got in the same email. Once you've done this, the gauges will work and you're ready to fly. You'll also need to download a version 1.1 patch that addresses some autopilot issues.
There are five different model versions, including freight and military, and the plane as supplied comes with a large number of liveries that seems to include all the major Saab 340 operators.
Documentation consists of a 195-page Pilot Operating Handbook that covers the panel, the aircraft systems, and the normal operating procedures. There is also a 41-page Flight Tutorial.
The plane comes complete with a Load Configuration Manager, which has its own 12-page manual. The Load page allows you to load virtual passengers and their luggage as well as fill the aircraft with the appropriate amount of fuel. The Panel page allows you to set the gauge refresh rate, as well as activating the gauges as mentioned earlier.
If you need any further help, there is an FFS support forum here at AVSIM, although it's not particularly active.
From the outside, the Saab 340 looks very good. The external features have a very crisp appearance, particularly the undercarriage and stairs, and it's convincing down to the level of the rivets and the small logos on the engine nacelle and props. The observant will notice that the real-life tailstand is missing, but that's a relatively small item. FFS have used something called "Dynamic Shine" and it certainly produces a good reflection effect without being too strong. Overall, it's a very convincing plane in Spot View or on a walk-round.
However, once we go through the passenger door and into the body of the plane, the impression changes. For a start, there are three alternative configurations for each model. The first two are 2D Cockpit only, and Virtual Cockpit. Fair enough, this allows people not to use the VC if they prefer the 2D panel, and want to avoid any performance hit. But then there's the third option, Virtual Cabin. What's that? Well, it's just the cabin, with no virtual cockpit up front. The sort of thing they use in real life for training cabin attendants. What's the point of that? So some people can use the 2D Cockpit, but still have virtual cabin views if they want, presumably. But why aren't the Virtual Cockpit and Virtual Cabin joined together, in one model, like every other plane out there with a virtual cabin? There seems no obvious reason for this eccentric arrangement, and FFS have themselves stated that they will be joining the two together in an update release.
In spite of its disembodied existence, the virtual cabin is realistic enough in itself, and with a good use of reflection produces a "being there" sort of feel. Sadly, I did not get the same feeling with either the 2D panel or the VC panel. These perceptions are always subjective, but for me they looked flat and lifeless, as though they were made out of dull plastic. There is none of the highlighting, shading, gradation of colour or wear-and-tear effects that can make a panel look just like the real thing.
The 2D panel of the Saab 340 comes with a number of sub-panels, as would be expected from a typically "busy" turboprop layout. Both the Pilot and the First Officer have an IFR and a VFR panel, the latter allowing more visibility over the glareshield. Then there are the overhead panels (front and rear), centre console panels (front and rear), engine instrument panel and radio panel. Then there are a number of "pop-up" panels, that either enlarge instruments on the panel (for example the EADI), or show instruments that are not on the panel (for example the GPS or the Audio Control Panel)
So that's a lot of panels. How easy is it to get around them and to use them?
Well the first point to note is that there are no "clickable areas" to get from one panel to the other, which would have been very useful to get from the forward views to the overhead or the console panels, or from Pilot to First Officer. Apart from keyboard shortcuts, the only way to get from one to the other is to use the Panel Switching Icons. Which brings us to three problems. The first is that these are not "icons" in the commonly-accepted sense; these are not the little diagrams that we know and love from MSFS and countless add-ons. Instead they are rather meaningless sets of initials (FV = First Officer's VFR view, CR = Console Rear) that are just not as instantly recognisable as a simple picture. The second problem is that these icons are not in the same place on every panel, so that each new panel that comes up in effect shifts the icons somewhere else, so you have to play a game of "chase the icons with the mouse" in order to move around. It would have been relatively simple to design the panels with the icons in the same place each time. The third problem is that the icons don't all work the same way; some panels go away when you click the icon a second time, others don't and you have to click another icon to get rid of them. The whole "user interface design" of panel switching, if I can call it that, is completely non-intuitive. Nothing seems to be designed to be easy or to work in an obvious way.
Having got beyond those difficulties, other issues emerge. For example, the Audio Control Panel, used for switching navaid idents on and off among other things, cannot even be brought up with a keyboard shortcut. So how do you get to it? Well, through the menu bar at the top of the screen, the one you get rid of when you go into full screen mode. Yes, you have to "Alt" to bring it up, then Views - Instrument Panel - Audio Panel. How do you fancy doing all that when you've ident'd the ILS and you're capturing it and ATC are nagging you and you want to turn off that annoying beep? Then there are some more usability problems. Three-way switches on the overhead that look as though they are in the "up" position when they are really in the "middle" position. Then there is the autopilot panel. I have a 19" flat panel monitor running at 1280 X 1024, yet with my eyes 3" away I still cannot see which button is which. There is a problem with font choice and/ or size and / or contrast. I either have to memorise which is which, or else move the cursor over them to see what the tooltip says - not something I want to be fiddling around with when the cockpit workload is high. There are similar problems reading the various detente settings on the throttle quadrant. And talking about tooltips - why not have them show the numeric setting when adjusting something like course or heading bugs, which is almost becoming an "industry standard" elsewhere these days, and would make the panel just that bit easier to use?
Turning to the VC, again it's a subjective impression but while it is marginally better than the 2D, it still has a somewhat lifeless appearance. It's more or less fully-clickable, and it is possible to fly completely from the VC, although there are more usability issues that I'll come to later. However one thing that may catch you out is that while the throttle and condition levers both visibly move in the 2D panel, in the VC the condition levers don't move. Apparently this part of the system was not completed when the product was put on the market.
The VC also suffers from some of the same problems as the 2D panel - legibility of autopilot and centre console. Those perspective problems with switches are of course exaggerated when looking at the overhead from the "wrong" angle - the effect is a little bizarre.
So now it's time to settle into either the left or right seat and get this airplane rolling.
At the end of the Systems Manual, there is a set of Operating Procedures that can take you through the entire flight from start to finish. There's also a separate Flight Tutorial. Unfortunately these don't correspond exactly - some sequences of operations differ between the two manuals - so it's best to choose to go with either one or the other, and avoid the confusion of trying to use both.
Unfortunately, the litany of usability problems continues. Every new plane can be bewildering on first acquaintance, particularly a "busy" passenger turboprop, but there are ways to make it easier to get to know a new aircraft. One way is to have the initial checklist to follow a nice linear, top-to-bottom or left-to-right scan. That way, if you don't immediately recognise a particular switch or instrument, at least you know it's somewhere near the last one. Unfortunately the Operating Procedures do not do that. They start off like that, but then are all over the place, darting from panel to panel, from up there to down here and back again. This results in some very frustrating and time-wasting searches for items that should have been easy to find. Then sometimes terms are introduced - like the "APA" - with no prior explanation. (It's the "altitude preselector alerter", but you don't learn that until you get to a later page.) Some instructions are incomplete - for example, it tells you to switch on the "External Power" switch to get external power, but that by itself is not sufficient - the remaining instructions are elsewhere in the manual. The "Engine Start" instruction is physically impossible to perform as specified. It requires the left hand to hold a switch on the overhead, the eyes to be watching the engine instruments, and the right hand to be operating the condition lever. With the 2D panel it's impossible to have the right combination of sub-panels up at the same time. With the VC it would need two mice to accomplish. The only way to do it is to do things out of sequence (ignoring a specific warning in the Operating Procedures), or just to give up on the whole idea and just press Ctrl - E. Another difficulty to mention is changing the heading bug in the VC. The knob is so far away from the actual bug on the EHSI, that it's virtually impossible to keep the two in view at the same time, so the temptation is to go back to the 2D panel for heading changes. No doubt that's a limitation of the real aircraft, but it's precisely where a numeric readout on the tooltip would have been so useful.
I would quite understand if many newcomers to this aircraft gave up at some point during this unnecessarily difficult familiarisation process, and left it to gather dust in some unvisited part of their Aircraft selection menu. Passenger turboprops are inherently complex and difficult aircraft to master, but FFS have made the learning curve even steeper with their approach to usability issues. If only they had looked at similar products out there in the market, and learnt the lessons of how these aircraft can be made relatively simple to get around. And it's a shame, because if you do get as far as starting the engines and setting the navigation instruments and radios, it's actually quite nice to fly.
When I say "quite nice", that may sound as though I'm damning it with faint praise. Let me be a little more specific.
In terms of handling, it comes across as quite competent. On the taxiway, down the runway, in the air, it handles with the right combination of stability and responsiveness for a plane of this size and weight (subject to the flight modeling limitations of FS9, which now seem to have improved in FSX). Whether it flies according to "the numbers" is another question, because the Systems Manual has limited information on power settings, and none on how these translate into airspeed and fuel consumption, so I can't be precise either way. However, compared to other products in this class, there is nothing in the performance or handling that seems surprising or anomalous. While it can be flown with the MSFS GPS coupled to the autopilot, in reality there is no such assistance, and real-life Saab 340 pilots use the traditional techniques involving ADF beacons, VOR radials, and DME readouts. I always find it a refreshing change from glass cockpits to use these techniques from time-to-time.
It's also important to point out that the complexity of the Saab 340 systems is very well-represented. There are many interactions among the various systems - electrical, fuel, hydraulic etc. - and therefore potential for bugs and mistakes, but it is a credit to the programmers and testers on this aircraft that all these complex relationships are accurately modeled.
However, there are two things that in my opinion detract from the pleasure of flying this aircraft. The first is the already-mentioned sheer clumsiness of the panel "user interface", that turns some simple operations into frustrating struggles. And the second is the sound set. Again this is partly a subjective thing, but the Saab 340 is a relatively small aircraft with relatively large engines and props, and the sounds for me just do not convey the full spectrum of sound - they are too lightweight and not nearly throaty enough.
Performance and Quality
I did an average FPS comparison with the PMDG Beechcraft 1900C and the Flight 1 ATR, being representative of simple and complex models in this class respectively...
...and the FFS Saab 340 certainly does not appear among the best performers in this class.
In terms of system modelling and reliability, the Saab 340 is an extremely complex and sophisticated piece of engineering, yet I have encountered no bugs in the way this has been implemented, and this is of great credit both to those who programmed it, and those responsible for testing.
I have to say that I was disappointed with the FFS Saab 340. Particularly so when we have so many aircraft in the other classes - GA, bizjets, passenger jets, military - but the passenger turboprop is a group that is very under-represented, and it would be nice to have another good addition. But, in my opinion, this aircraft just doesn't match up to its peers.
The outside appearance is good, and when inside, the modelling of the systems is excellent. But that's not enough. Modern aircraft are difficult enough to learn to fly as it is, so the last thing we need is an additional gradient on the learning curve due to problems with the user interface and documentation. The difficulty of getting to grips with this aircraft is going to put a lot of people off, unless they are hardcore Saab 340 fans who will presumably put up with a lot in order to fly their favourite aircraft.
Having said that, there is nothing that I've mentioned that is fundamental, that couldn't be fixed with some re-design and re-working, particularly of the panel. The question is whether FFS are prepared to make the commercial decision to go ahead and do that. They, like all other add-on makers, will be looking at the implications of creating an FSX version of their products, and where, given the mixed reactions to FSX, the market will be in 6 - 12 months time. But without such a re-work, I don't believe the 340 will be able to compete on either platform. Which is a shame because, as I say, we need all the good passenger turboprops we can get.
|What I Like About the FFS Saab 340|
|What I Don't Like About the FFS 340|
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